“Misson to Mars,” directed by Brian De Palma

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Space Rhapsody

By Ray Sawhill

Last Saturday, after a week of media-free living in Mexico, my wife and I walked into a San Diego movie theater, where we watched a new science fiction picture in the company of a modest crowd. At first I was intrigued by its quiet tone. Some awkward moments made me worry that the film might lose its audience, but the crowd remained attentive. Then some passages of extraordinary beauty and daring took me another step in. By the film’s end I was quite moved. I spent the rest of the evening happily babbling about what the movie had made me feel and think.

The movie was Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” and only when we arrived in New York and I tuned back into the media did I learn what readers who follow the press’s coverage of movies already know — that “Mission to Mars” got the year’s worst reviews, a spanking almost as severe as that received by an earlier De Palma film, “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Friends told me of press screenings where viewers jeered the film, and after a first weekend of strong business, audiences for the film are growing sparse. The reviewers’ criticisms? The movie is slow, it’s unconvincing, it’s preposterous, it’s over-solemn. Rumor has it that De Palma was so humiliated by his notices that he canceled all his publicity dates after the reviews came out. “Mission to Mars,” the world seems to have concluded, just doesn’t work.

Beg to differ: it sure worked for me. I’d like to suggest that it might work for some other viewers too — at least if you don’t go to it expecting a big corporate space jam. Instead, it’s introverted and reflective, less a conventional clash-of-conflicting-desires drama than a mournful, sweet ballad on the themes of fate, adventure, and near misses. It’s narrative poetry in the guise of an outer-space adventure — not such a strange combination, if you think of something like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

It has to be admitted that De Palma’s movies are a special case. He has never had much gift for conventional persuasiveness. The acting in his movies can look college-production awkward, and, although he has featured such actors as Robert De Niro and John Travolta early in their careers, he sometimes makes bumbling casting mistakes. (Here, Armin Muehler-Stahl is as heavy-spirited and hammy as ever.) De Palma has always struck me as a born avant-gardist, a Donald Barthelme or Godard type who has applied himself conscientiously to the making of conventional pop movies. Perhaps he appeals most to people for whom art is a game anyway, and who don’t need a lot of persuading in order to join in.

For those who do find his wavelength, “Mission to Mars” offers a jaunty and gallant Tim Robbins; Don Cheadle doing a good job of suggesting mental horsepower and technical expertise; and a real find in Connie Nielsen, a poised Swedish beauty who suggests Isabella Rossellini with a couple of advanced degrees. There are some beautifully done stretches where De Palma takes you inside the kinds of mental states you might experience during moments of panic, as well as unusual moments when you’re drawn into a character’s cerebrations. Gary Sinise, playing a hurtin’ astronaut who feels he has nothing to lose, may not be the ideal actor for this role — he’s gloomy where he needs to be warm — but he comes through at his best here. The movie also offers some silent-movie style visual poetry, corny, obvious images that are transcended by feeling and audacity.

It also offers genuine thought and reflection — and not the usual art-and-entertainment-world, gender/power/class/race crapola. De Palma is genuinely a science-idea-driven filmmaker. When I interviewed him some years ago, I found him guarded and perverse. Then I ventured the thought that I was convinced his thriller “The Fury” — like “Mission to Mars,” occasionally preposterous on the surface but brilliant underneath — was really all about cybernetics (a science that studies feedback and control, and that has been of intense interest to people in computers and neuroscience), and riffed on how the film’s themes, organization and staging suggested circuitry and feedback loops of both the electronic and organic type.

He brightened up and told me he’d written a thesis in college on cybernetics, and from then on the interview went swimmingly. (The Times the other day ran a story about some scientists who have proposed that a meteorite shower millions of years ago perhaps seeded the earth — an idea not far from one of the major ideas in the film.) “Mission to Mars” could be said to be about the human cost of our involvement in our ideas and adventures, and about how that cost makes us ask ourselves some of the big questions: Why, for instance, are we forever getting ourselves into these predicaments? And what are the sources of our drives?

Here are some tips about what to watch for in the film. Look for circles and spirals, the way circles are always morphing into spirals, and the ways De Palma associates these shapes with dance and rhythm: the pulsing double helixes, the twister that swallows the crew in the first act, the way blood and soda spiral around in weightlessness — images that made me, for one, gasp at their beauty. Even the film’s telescoping narrative suggests a spiral — it begins in great circling camera moves set to swirling Louisiana music, moves through several apparent protagonists, and ends with a blastoff through a column of luminous swirling debris.

Watch for the use of toys, models and rehearsals. An early emergency occurs when a micrometeorite breaks through a touch-screen the astronauts are using to prepare for dealing with emergencies. Suddenly they’re contending with an emergency they had no way of anticipating.

The film begins with a visual joke — a rocket blastoff that turns out to be a toy rocket. By the final blastoff, real lives are at stake. De Palma is talking about the way we seem to be moving from an industrial culture that demands certitude and explanation to an information culture, where everything is a matter of probability and we try to comprehend the world by making models of it. Kubrick, our only other truly intellectual feature-filmmaker, got the respect for his brains (even for “Eyes Wide Shut” !) that De Palma has never gotten — perhaps because the later Kubrick always maintained a magisterial, Euro-serious manner. De Palma is more American and boyish; he at least tries to deliver the pop goods.

You’ve never seen a movie where so much of it is upside down, circular, or rotating. De Palma swoops in, right through windows and other barriers, on his space-suited characters as they float about, or walk around in circles. He’s suggesting the fun and fact of weightlessness, of course, but also the giddiness of that domain we’re all getting to know called cyberspace, and perhaps the experience of thought itself. Watch also for the way the number three keeps recurring, and let yourself play with its resonances and suggestions: mother/father/child, the three acts of conventional drama, the three main parts of the human body, the three orders of classical architecture. The Christian Trinity, also: De Palma makes a point of always having someone say, when experiencing terror or surprise, “Jesus,” or “My God.”

There’s a real vision here — of life as a game that, whether we want it to or not, will always get serious on us; an almost Tantric vision of women (the circle) and men (the column) attaining occasional bliss (the spiral) together; of art and religion as the outs that our fate occasionally permits us. And it’s a vision of the place of ideas and belief in our lives. The film might be said to be a meditation on origins and destinies, couplehood and death, and the fate of pictorial storytelling in the age of the computer — motifs and themes that are braided through the film with a complexity that suggests two great late Chris Marker films, “Sans Soleil” and “The Last Bolshevik.”

Why did the press come down so heavily on “Mission to Mars”? On a surface level, the film certainly isn’t as convincing or dynamic as it perhaps ought to be. But there’s plenty of high-quality urgent realism to be had these days — “Law and Order,” for instance, is on TV nearly every night. Why insist on it from every work of dramatic entertainment? Some reviewers complained that when emergencies occurred, the astronauts remained too poker-faced. But many people enter a deliberate, calm state during emergencies. Do we really need the usual flashing red lights, and extras rushing about as though supplying background action for “E.R.”? The film is certainly unusual — internalized, yet played out as spectacle. But at least some reviewers are familiar with the likes of Tarkovsky’s legendary “Solaris,” the winner of no one’s awards for plausibility or peppy editing. And is the film’s much-ridiculed dialog really worse than the dialog in “2001” or “Aliens”? Really? The film was even mocked for its space creature — but she struck me as a witty fusion of the Roswell alien and a Cambodian Buddha, along with suggestions of E.T.; in a nice touch, her frog eyes echo Sinise’s.

Is it unfair of me to wonder aloud whether, at a time when ironic or edgy media gloating is the preferred tone, the film’s combination of intellectuality and emotional straightforwardness was hard for reviewers to process? But perhaps they really just didn’t enjoy the film. Too bad — there’s much there to love. Here’s my tip for those who know and respond to some of De Palma’s work: “Mission to Mars” is one of his tender, personal films, like “Blow Out” and “Casualties of War.” For those who have never tuned in to his movies, this isn’t the one that will win you over, though I don’t think even on a surface level it’s as bad as it’s been made out to be.

For everyone else: Why not try “Mission to Mars”? If you don’t mind forgiving some surface gaffes and letting the film’s deeper structures go to work on you, you might find yourself enjoying some unusual visions. Late in the film, Sinise is being prepared for a long journey. He steps into a lighted circle, is encased in a glass column (those circles! those columns!), and is submerged in a clear, roiling liquid. In a panic, he holds his breath until he can’t hold it anymore. The air finally bursts out of him — but then he finds he can get oxygen from the fluid. Is he a baby in a womb or a living exhibit? Is he dying or in ecstasy? In any case, this questing, melancholy searcher is finally going home. “Mission to Mars” is a nerd’s rhapsody.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“The Black Stallion,” directed by Carroll Ballard

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Taking the Plunge

By Ray Sawhill

The opening titles of Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion,” in a cursive script that suggests Islamic calligraphy, appear over what seem to be sand dunes. The image is harsh yet jewel-like. A wind whips the sand, reshaping it, and a fierce golden light illuminates it. We register that the sand grains are big — that these are miniature dunes. As the sand is moved away, we see what it has been burying: a small, darkened-bronze horse that has the look of art from ancient Mediterranean cultures, from what we tend to picture as the cradle of civilization. The sculpture is realistic and not-realistic; it’s like Egyptian hieroglyphics, a symbol that happens (as if coincidentally) to look like what it symbolizes. Ballard’s film is based on the “Black Stallion” series of novels by Walter Farley; the script is credited to Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William Witliff. In the film, erotic nature poetry pours through the framework of a children’s story.

Sponsored for five years by Francis Coppola, Ballard made a film, his first feature, that is at once a children’s classic on a par with “The Wizard of Oz” and a realization of many avant-garde ideals — it may be the best children’s film ever made. (Coppola and Ballard had attended UCLA’s film school together in the early 1960s. Coppola devised a deal with United Artists to let Ballard make the film as he saw fit; when the executives didn’t like the finished work, Coppola interceded to obtain it a showing at the New York Film Festival and a theatrical opening.) As much as Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II,” Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and Altman’s “Nashville,” “The Black Stallion” is an embodiment of the ardor and euphoria of a period in the 1970s when artists briefly transformed American feature filmmaking. And like these other filmmakers, Ballard achieved something akin to visual music not by denying the commercial and storytelling aspects of film but by treating them as abstract properties and incorporating them into his film’s texture.

The opening section takes place mostly onboard ship. Alec (Kelly Reno), a boy of about ten, is on a sea voyage with his poker-playing dad. Wandering around the ship, the boy sees a magnificent black stallion fighting its Arab handlers, who wrestle it into a stall. As Ballard directs it, there’s a sense of latency about this passage. Everything is muffled, held in abeyance, contained. The skies are overcast, the features of the Arabs barely visible under their robes, the stallion roped down. Even the ocean beyond has something like a skin on it. There are indistinct yet vivid onboard-ship sounds, such as the changing timbre and source directions of the noise of the engine, which seems to irradiate the ship.

In the chopped-up spaces inside, Ballard uses rich golden lighting — everything is subdued but heavily sensual: old money and jewels, leather, aged skin, brass. This helps us understand the boy’s sense that things he doesn’t understand are going on all around him, and may remind you of the kind of wondering you did as a child about what existed before your birth. (Alec is only beginning to develop an idea of linear time and of cause and effect: of the properties of story.)

There’s nothing theoretical or programmatic about Ballard’s work; he sets up these associations and feelings and lets them register — he lets us take them in. When Alec leans over the edge of the ship to feel the wind and watch the sea rush by, Ballard shows us the long arc of the ship’s rim, a wedge of metallic water, and Alec’s body turned away from us. The image has similarities to various kinds of narrative-seeming Eastern art, and is a reminder of how much Japanese prints suggest illustrations to stories we’re not being told, and that might not make sense to us anyway.

Ballard is working with the conventions of a children’s adventure novel — exotic characters, Arabs, the tethered-down horse, the piles of loot on the poker table, an unexplained sea voyage — to create a storybook atmosphere of enchantment. He’s bringing together and setting alight interconnected feelings and memories: about childhood, moviegoing, the enchanted East, and the art we love as children. The boy enjoys and takes advantage of his ability to go unnoticed. While the Arabs look away, he places sugar cubes on the edge of the stallion’s stall; there’s an amazing shot of the stallion’s lips, seen in profile, reaching out, after some hesitation, to take the sugar. The arc shapes Ballard uses suggest the curves of linear art, yet from the center of these twists can be coaxed out the richly-modeled, Giotto-like face of the horse.

When the father (Hoyt Axton) returns from his card-playing to the cabin, he spills out his winnings — jewels, coins, marvels — and gives two prizes to his son: a penknife, and the toy horse we saw under the titles. The father explains that it’s a sculpture of Bucephalos, the horse Philip II was going to destroy — because no one could ride it — until Alexander, his son, mounted the horse and rode away. (Axton tells this story with gentle, sweet bravado.)

At the end of this section, the boy lies in his berth looking at the tiny sculpture, which is on a shelf. The camera closes in on the bronze, the golden light grows deeper, reddish, and the angle on the toy becomes cockeyed. As moviegoers we understand that the toy has set the boy to drowsy daydreaming — about his father, the stallion, about adventure and the magic of representation. Then we realize that the reddish light is from fire: the ship is on fire. There has never been a director so gifted at representing the way our perceptions and what they’re perceiving can grow confused. (He gets at how we have to learn how to perceive and interpret our mental processes, and at how you may never feel totally secure in your ability to do so.) As the boy’s father rushes him to the deck, the boy can’t help taking in the special qualities (and even the beauty) of the danger, and of his own fear. Alec opens the door of the stallion’s stall — the horse breaks free and leaps into the ocean — and fights the hubbub on deck. And then he’s in the water too.

Many of us probably aren’t aware of how often at the movies we’ve seen characters hit the water. Ballard gives this unfamiliar/familiar trope real resonance. (He has, in fact, made two great plunk-into-the-water scenes: the other is in his second feature, “Never Cry Wolf,” when the ecologist, walking across what seems to be an utterly barren, snow-covered field, pauses, hearing what might be scattered rifle shots from all directions, and then he’s through the ice, falling toward the bottom of the frozen lake it turns out he’s been crossing.) The ship and the ocean are as patently a model and a tank as they might be in a Fellini picture, but Ballard uses the artificiality for immediacy: they help sustain the storybook atmosphere, to keep us in tune with the child and to heighten the sense of mythic danger; things can seem unreal when you’re in peril. Whoosh, and Alec’s lost in a domain where everything moves in smooth, slow motion, where the light is still golden but diffuse, where the dark has a new density, and where things not only fall, they rise. Then the ship’s stern swings by and the propeller almost chews him up. The imagery seems to occur right at the edge of consciousness, like the images you may get of stairwells and escalators — are they the end of thought or the beginning of dream? — as you fall into sleep.

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The horse struggles by, and swims off with the boy clutching a rope trailing from its neck. In the film’s second act, Alec awakens on a desert island. Exploring it, he finds the horse in its bridles and straps, caught among rocks. The boy cuts the animal free and sets about learning how to survive on the island, using his knife to spear fish and make fire. One morning he’s threatened by a cobra, and is saved when the stallion tramples it. The boy and horse make contact when he offers it some food. They grow to be fast friends, the boy learning to ride, the horse learning to accept a rider.

What Ballard held down in the first section he releases on the island. Colors and natural sounds rush in, and the child moves to the center. I was once hit by a car — tossed up into the night air — as I crossed a city street. During the moment between the collision and my landing on the sidewalk amid broken glass, I saw lights spinning around me, realized what had happened, and decided to take in the flavor of the sensations. I was bedazzled. This section of the movie has the submitting-to-rapture quality that instant had for me. It feels blown clear of caution and routine; you stand on a promontory, facing the wind and watching the weather take form miles away. The rocks and beaches, the strand, the sea beyond, the horse’s mane and tail like proud banners — we’re seeing nature in ecstasy.

The outlines are sinuous, Tiffany-like; the surfaces a swirl of pebble, mother-of-pearl, and silk; the tints the colors of semiprecious stones — peacock colors. The sound spectrum shifts too, from muffled to triumphant: crashing ocean, the drumming hooves of a horse running free. (Carmine Coppola’s music — much of it for winds, plucked strings, and simple drums — contributes a Near Eastern flavor.) When Ballard shows us the horse in nature as the child sees it, the creature has an aristocratic grandeur and wildness; it’s a beast from a more untamed world. (These images of the horse leading its own life in the wild are in the tradition of “White Mane,” and of the shots of horses in “Ecstasy.”) One image includes the horse toy, which the boy has placed on a rock, and, far behind it, galloping by the ocean’s edge, the stallion. We may register that the boy feels as though the toy is what his father bequeathed him.

Ballard gives you the gift of seeing into and beyond the expected; this corresponds to the way the boy’s senses are shaken into intense life by the magnitude of what has happened to him, and of what surrounds him. As Ballard (and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) film them, waves running up the sand are veils of overlapping color stroking a beaded ground, an image as transfixing as the sight of the sea bottom seen tens of feet below you from the edge of a boat. He maintains a precise respect for the framework, giving attention to Alec’s hunger, chills, sunburn and painful, bare feet. And he delivers the easy-to-anticipate story points — the exchange of rescues, the horse’s and boy’s acknowledgement of each other as allies, the making of contact — with an inspired ingenuity and pictorial grandeur that allows an adult to share a child viewer’s surprise. When Alec awakens to see the cobra rising and unfolding before him, the snake has the hyperrealism and the intricate patterned beauty of a pen-and-ink-and-watercolor monster. It seems to rise out of dream; it’s the monster you always expected to find under your bed, the one that would destroy sleep forever.

One passage is set to a waltz-like oboe, flute, and piano theme. We watch the boy and horse in the sea, goofing by the shore; the camera is underwater. We watch the horse’s proud, gauche, side-to-side motions, and the boy’s darting and weightlessness: a pas de deux for two unlikely dancers. It comes to an end with a flurry of bubbles and a cut to the boy astride the horse, which gallops through the shallow surf; the boy has mounted the horse for the first time. As Alec learns to ride and the horse adapts to a rider, we get images in slow motion, images from a camera that corkscrews and rises far overhead. The horse gallops through shallow water; Alec falls off the horse and into the surf, and tries again.

Ballard achieves the illusion of nature and the imagination merging, the world perceived ecstatically, while he speaks the language of the commercial cinema. Like the marketplace storyteller of the Near East, he’s aware that the market is its own language, and that he is speaking through that language. Yet he brings to this children’s movie an awareness of other centers and traditions, other cultures and formal possibilities. When the boy finds the stallion trapped among rocks, its bridles holding it down, Ballard’s composition of angles and sounds puts the scene, as a representation of blindness, power, and struggle, on a level with D.H. Lawrence’s image in “St. Mawr” of the reared-back horse, fallen over, its legs pawing the sky, and with Picasso’s image of a gored horse rising up on its front legs and protesting its death. (Alan Splet, who did the soundtrack, had a member of his team spend three weeks living with her tape recorder among horses. He shows here — as he does in his work with David Lynch — his gift for keeping us aware of sounds as mental events, happening inside our heads.)

Ballard is working into his film our experience of childhood, the art we remember from childhood, from the childhood of the medium, and from the childhood of the civilization that eventually produced the medium. The kids’ adventure-book landmarks are all mixed up with ways of seeing that we remember from children’s movies, silent movies, and Near Eastern art. (The horse has some of the sexiness of European “Orientalist” fantasies about slave markets and pashas, but with much more force behind it.)

When you think about the film artists whose work Ballard evokes, you realize how aware they were of developing and speaking a conventional language. In movies like “National Velvet” and “Thief of Bagdad,” themes are announced and played out. “I … believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly,” Velvet is told by her mother, and that entire film is laid out as crisply as her pronouncement. Most of “National Velvet” takes place in the studio; Clarence Brown, the director, uses the actual outdoors very selectively, mostly to heighten the wind-through-your-hair feeling of the riding sequences. He uses the studio stylization to help assemble a protected world in which a girl’s fervor could reach a culmination, and in which it makes sense that she might get to ride her horse in the Grand National. “Thief of Bagdad” is all about set design. Everything is made artificial. The film’s central symbol is a life-size toy horse that is assembled in parts, then wound up with a key. Whirrrr, click, and it becomes something better than a real horse, because it can gallop across the skies. The movie itself is a put-together toy that flies.

Using new technology and the current industry conditions, Ballard went out and found (or developed) in nature the kinds of effects, settings, and atmospheres that earlier directors developed in the studio and with special effects. In the animals on ancient coins, bulk, movement, and potential are all suggested by a few curving lines. Ballard uses movie conventions as ancient artists used these lines. They indicate to us the way into another realm. They’re chutes, the arcs we trace as we pass from one state into another — they’re beckonings, as well as, later, records of our passage. Ballard plunges into the forms created by earlier filmmakers and takes his style from what he drags with him as he moves below.

Ballard is showing that in the boy’s mind, a developing center of consciousness — a marketplace of feelings and ideas — is taking form. The apparatus of the seashore — the beach, the shipwreck, the island, the strand — corresponds to the emergence of conscious awareness, of a place to stand to see the Other (in this case, the animal Other). This passage on the island has to do with the first sense you get of your own consciousness jelling, an experience that we may, as adults, relive when our ideas begin to take on a life of their own. The imagery and sounds of the adventure book conventions (waking on the sand, wooing the horse, learning to fish) have been sweetened and perfumed, as though brought to us by travelers from lands we’ve never visited. The sparkle of the surfaces, the brocaded sand and lapis skies, the slow-motion that suggests an oral-storyteller’s favorite passage: Ballard’s goal is to create and sustain a moment of apprehension. We enter the once-crusted-over thing and wind up inside looking out. Then the boy and the horse are rescued by fishermen.

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What happens rhythmically and emotionally in the third act is a pause, and then a building-back-up. As it begins, the boy is home with his mother (Teri Garr). The horse, kept for a night in their back yard and terrified by the early-morning noises of a suburb waking up, breaks free and races away. After a search, the boy finds it again, on the farm of a one-time horse trainer named Henry (Mickey Rooney). Henry agrees to give the horse a stall, and to train the boy and horse — accustoming the horse to the bridle and the boy to more formal race riding. He shows the pair off to a buddy, a celebrated racing announcer, who’s impressed enough to set up a match race between the stallion and the country’s fastest thoroughbreds.

The way Ballard presents this movement, he gets us seeing the action as standing for the reintroduction of the independent imagination into the conditions of shared life, and for what has to be gone through in order to present beauty to the world. The suburb’s small houses stand on tiny plots of land; with curbs and intersections, and the noise of cars and families, the area is almost as chopped-up and confining as shipboard. (We have reemerged back into movie conventionality.) The horse, spooked by the sound of garbage being collected, gallops off for someplace freer, cleaner. It passes by a factory, its chimneys spilling pollutants into the air, before finding its way to the countryside — the horse’s reactions are the reactions of our imagination to the congestion of this life. Ballard gets us seeing such passages abstractly: here, as confinement, revulsion, and a blind burst into something more agreeable. We might be observing the workings of glands and valves. Ballard presents the boy’s pursuit of the horse as a lightly-comic variation on B’rer Rabbit, or on Grimm. An ancient man on a cart, smoke, a night spent under the eaves of a run-down warehouse: it’s like a trek through a fairy tale’s scary forest.

This movement takes its tone from the interaction of the characters and actors; they’re the ground the horse stands out against. The boy has a depth and an obstinacy that his now-widowed mother can’t understand and that he can’t explain; he has had to learn guardedness. Teri Garr’s professionalism and pragmatism jibe well with her character’s amazement and disbelief, her realizing how serious the boy is about racing his horse. She’s settled and fleshly; she’s the den mother of this tidy world. She situates us back in the real world after our minutes aloft with the boy and horse.

Henry the horse-trainer comes on mean and defiant — he wants to keep the horse for himself. Snooping around Henry’s barn, the boy finds his way into a dusty old room full of jockey trophies and memorabilia — again, life before he was born: a past, something he’s only beginning to understand. (This scene is a reminder of one in “National Velvet”; Velvet and her mother explore their attic and look over the mother’s old athletic awards.) When Henry sees how well the horse and kid get on, he’s won over and brought out of himself. He understands and adores the horse’s strength and reluctance. He doesn’t want to tame and master it — he and Alec simply try to channel the beast’s energy, to guide it a little. “You don’t have to pump him,” Henry tells Alec about riding the horse flat-out. “Throw it away. He’ll be makin’ that rhythm.”

It’s rainy the night the race announcer visits the track for a demonstration of the horse’s abilities; he doesn’t even emerge from his car when he sees the boy atop the horse. Rooney is wonderful at suggesting his character’s attitude of “I’m not kidding! This is really gonna be something!” We stay with the grown-ups as the horse circles the track. They can’t see the horse, and with them we listen through the rain, the dark, the sounds of windshield wipers and idling car engines, for indications of it. Galloping hoofbeats come out of one direction for a bit, then out of another; these sounds could be the symptoms of an impossible-to-identify condition we carry in ourselves. When Henry pulls Alec off the stallion, the kid is unconscious. What hasn’t been shown has been made visible to us.

The match race itself is a merging of nature poetry and conventional movie form. Without doing anything cerebral or Eisensteinian, Ballard turns the hurtling horses into semi-abstract qualities and forces; they’re all reach and stretch, nostrils, flanks and gulping breaths. As an image of speed and power surging within confines, this passage is in a class with the greatest Futurist paintings. The track is an oval — society has cleared out a space for these demonstrations. The pageantry — all harlequin colors and heraldic music — is like guidelines and directional signals (they go well with the blinders put on the horses); Ballard makes us register the contrast with the shimmying visual rhythms of the island passage. The race is tense. Where the camera rose up and flew over the boy and horse on the island (it seemed to want to include the curvature of the horizon), here it crouches over, down low, at times skimming the dirt beneath the inside fence, which tilts toward the track; the camera wears blinders. At other times it’s wedged between the horses, or sweeping wide behind all of them as they take a curve, the sounds of the crowd driving it along.

This act is full of images and passages that you remember as you might private moments from your own childhood: Teri Garr’s flower-print dresses, earrings, and bewildered face; the trophy room, dusty yet neat; Mickey Rooney using a bale of hay as a horse to teach the boy how to use a saddle; Alec searching through a bureau for something to protect his hands and finding his father’s watches and ties (furniture and its capacity for delight and treachery); Henry and Alec listening to an old, wood-bodied radio.

Part of what’s funny about the film is the boy’s acceptance of the unlikely adventures that befall him. Kelly Reno shows the clarity of the boy’s determination, his wariness and hiddenness, and the openness of his empathy with the horse; he manages to express the tenacity and strength of the boy’s love of the imagination. Alec’s skin seems transparent to us even while we understand that he’s learning how to conceal things from other people.

Mickey Rooney as the mentor is tender and intuitive. As the character he plays is reawakened by the horse and the boy’s love for it, Rooney seems reawakened as an actor. He sets the old trouper/dynamo we know him to be aside, like the character’s crustiness. (Rooney could be making amends for his over-hearty performance in “National Velvet.”) He’s not consciously showing us what he can do; he’s relating simply to a child and a horse. Living totally within the terms of the movie, he brings a respect for the sacred into his performance. As the ex-trainer shows the boy how to ride on a saddle, as he tries to accustom the horse to saddle and reins, he becomes like an acting teacher working with his greatest student; it’s as though he knows that what he’s dealing with is what he himself has always lived for, and that it’s present here before him in its most beautiful incarnation. He gets high on the action too.

The horse itself has movie glamour and the stature of a mythical beast. (Ballard and his horse trainer, Corky Randall, used primarily two horses, but altogether at least fourteen, to create the onscreen horse.) In one shot, the horse stands in its stall looking out at an overcast day, and its profile has the melancholy of Olivier’s Heathcliff. The eloquence of its balkiness — the way its raw talent, danger, and beastliness are barely held in check — is worthy of Brando. But Ballard is scrupulous about not anthropomorphizing the horse; his stallion isn’t a parody of a man, or of a man’s ideas about a horse. As he creates it, the stallion seems to live in connection with unfamiliar dimensions, and with regions of the universe that don’t normally find expression here on earth. When the horse rears in confusion and rage at the beginning of the match race, it makes sense. This is no domesticated creature; this is a special case.

When the whole world has been colonized and categorized, where does mystery remain? Or, at least, how can we manage to see a horse without its being neutered by the images and ideas of “horse” that we already have in our minds? Ballard seems to believe that you get back to a child’s freshness of response only during moments when you’re passing from one state into another — when you’re bewildered, and aren’t really sure what’s going on. In “The Black Stallion” (and in his later ballet film “Nutcracker”), he creates such moments, finding his way back into given forms until they release and permit a free fall. Ballard finds his way to and then works out of those moments when you don’t yet realize what’s happening to you; he works from what is generally considered to be what escapes us.

black stallion rooney

The three-movement presentation is an expression of this: the conventional movie that this film is at the end is very different — it seems to have been aerated — from the conventional movie it was at the beginning. The section on the island, with its tumbled-up, twinkling feel, is the passage. The clear-eyed apprehension of the world while categories and labels are off: Ballard gives us the illusion on the island that that’s what we’re seeing and hearing. It corresponds to a child’s way of seeing things, to an early man’s, and it corresponds to the force of the horse itself.

The toy horse is the fetish that draws us into and through the movie. The father gives the son a toy horse; the father dies and the toy horse gives rise to a real horse. Guilt and sorrow are built into the toy. The symbol becomes what it symbolizes: toy horse/real horse, child/parent, movie/life. This play with proportion has to do with the way a child (and perhaps a grownup’s imagination) is constantly shifting in relation to the world. Really great toys seem to have built into them the process you go through when you lose yourself in play with them. (Getting this right is what the “Nutcracker” toymaker agonizes over.)

“The Black Stallion” is a fusion of an interest in toys and symbols, and a desire to get back to the pristine. As a filmmaker, Ballard can’t represent anything to us except through technology, yet he seems to feel with his whole soul that man and his instruments are the essential polluters — that the instruments of man’s vision are maybe the original polluters. How can you represent the pristine when the instrument of representation is a despoiler? (Travel writers must worry about this too.) We always come equipped with our concepts, our stories, our technology, and signs. In this movie, Ballard finds his way to the pristine by entering into constructs that we usually picture as the conventional signs of filmmaking for children and treating them as artifacts and symbols, working back through the accumulated pop-culture debris. He feels that this material — which we often feel superior to and often callously manipulate — has grown out of someplace deeper than we tend to admit. He treats conventional forms as the products of processes that reach back into prehistory, into mystery and myth.

Formally, what Ballard has done is to interweave a parable about the birth of one’s awareness of the imagination with the landmarks of a children’s story. As he has made it, the movie is like paintings or poems that have frames built into them as part of the image, the dreamer dreaming himself into existence, the shape of thought encircling and giving birth to the image. In the stallion, Ballard has managed to create in the language of feature films as conscious and potent a symbol as Woolf’s waves or lighthouse, yet the stallion also has a distinctive tumescence, like the pressure of water at a springhead. You’re right there at the instant when the horse chooses to accept a gift of seaweed from the boy, nourishment from beneath the waves.

At the end of the film, after the race, there’s a flashback to the boy romping with the stallion on the island’s beach, but it isn’t a shot we’ve seen before. In it, the boy and horse are at play beneath a spectacular rainbow, and this rainbow — a natural arc suggesting infinity — is the film’s recapitulation. It’s the scimitar shape of calligraphy made real. As the closing credits roll, we see the movie from the outside, but it wears a pulsing, calm flush. We have been given the illusion of entering and moving through a region of pure form and surfacing back into clear waters. In the movies, beauty has never run so rampant or so free.

© 1985 by Ray Sawhill

“Young Guns II,” directed by Geoff Murphy

young guns II cast

By Ray Sawhill

“Young Guns II” isn’t to be confused with the original “Young Guns,” a mixture of fake cowboy style and celebrity worship. The new picture, the first directed in America by the New Zealander Geoff Murphy, may have more glamorizing flourishes than it needs, but it also has obstreperousness and fervor. Within the limits of the commercial Western, it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking.

The movie takes another look at the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In this version, Billy’s ego is swelling even as his fortunes wane; he has begun to believe in his legend. But the big landowners want to crush Billy and his gang. They hire Billy’s old comrade in arms Pat Garrett (William Petersen) to track him down.

The actors — including Emilio Estevez, Lou Diamond Phillips and Kiefer Sutherland from the original film’s cast — bring wit and gravity to their roles. John Fusco’s script conveys something of the historical Billy — a small man who was a charismatic sociopath.

But it’s the director’s work that puts the movie across. Murphy refreshes the Western by channeling back into it the intensity that filmmakers set loose in the ’60s and ’70s. Played out against vast, totemic landscapes, “Young Guns II” is the first Western in years to have the ritualistic quality of the classics of the genre. (It isn’t a surprise to learn that Murphy’s wife is a Maori.)

geoff murphy

A former trumpet player who spent years touring with a rock band, Murphy, now 51, has a musician’s love of irreverence and shifts in tempo and mood. It wasn’t until 1980 that he made his first feature film, “Goodbye Pork Pie,” a lickety-split road movie that was as popular in New Zealand as “E.T.” His second film, “Utu,” about colonial rule in New Zealand, was a great hip epic. (It’s available on videocassette.) In it, Murphy fused elements of costume drama, Westerns, and samurai films: “In New Zealand we borrow genres and try to put our experience into them, and hope our own genres will develop over time.”

“Geoff’s a real mad-conductor type,” Fusco says. “He’d stay up all night working out the next day’s shooting in detailed computer drawings and plans, pass them out, then fall asleep until the assistant director would tell him it was time to roll. Then he’d shake himself, throw himself into the work and make it look effortless.”

Murphy says he’s still suffering from culture shock. “In New Zealand the movies are something you might go to on Saturday night. Here, the average 15-year-old has seen every movie. I’ve never experienced that level of fierceness about films.” A fan of Westerns, he says that “television did a lot of harm. Also, Sergio Leone had an effect. I love his films, but he did to the Western what Einstein did to physics — he finished the book. And he did it with such panache that he dehumanized it. If the Western wants to revive, it has to give the audience a chance to feel something.”

©1990 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“The Age of Innocence,” directed by Martin Scorsese

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Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: Most people probably take “The Age of Innocence” as a more-visually-inventive-than-usual Merchant-Ivory film. And most of them seem to enjoy it as such.

Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill: Middlebrow alert!

Polly Frost: It’s set in upper-crust 19th century New York City, among old money but just as the robber barons are emerging. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer. He has a private income, he dabbles in the law, he’s a member of one of the respectable families, and he’s engaged to the flawless, brainless offspring of another “good” family (Winona Ryder). But he has a hankering for culture. He caresses his books, and he knows one or two painters.

RS: Into his world walks Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska, woman of mystery and scandal. She’s fleeing a marriage to a philandering Polish count. She’s exotic, a teeny bit bohemian. Newland falls for her bigtime. So: will the countess, who needs money, return to the count or not? And what will Newland do about his passion for her?

PF: He’s such an honor-bound square that the way he expresses his passion for her is by helping her. There’s nothing more irritating than a man who gives you a lecture rather than making a pass at you. I’ve known a few of those.

RS: It’s a film in the tradition of “Brief Encounter.” And the missed-opportunity tragi-comedy is not my favorite genre. What do you make of the fact that some people have an appetite for genteel entertainments on this theme?

PF: They make a viewer feel civilized. They’re soap operas with all the good parts taken out.

RS: Newland Archer is a rotten central character. He’s a prig. You never understand why the countess looks at him passionately. Another problem is that Scorsese externalizes everything. Crimson, gold and chandeliers are everywhere. Since it’s already a Visconti world, the Countess doesn’t stand out. The film winds up being narrated and illustrated rather than dramatized.

PF: Some of the actors in the minor roles do seem to exist fully in the world of codified behavior and language. And Winona Ryder has a puppy-like helplessness, even when she’s being lethal and enslaving, that’s very effective.

RS: But Day-Lewis can’t do much with his role but mourn the way his balls are shriveling up. He’s so meticulous about playing a yearning American that he seems super-British. Pfeiffer works hard to generate some Garbo-like luster, but her nerves and her voice seem pure California.

PF: I liked her better than you did. She’s trying to come up with a reason why the countess is attracted to Newland. Maybe her interpretation is: the countess is out of her mind. She’s having a nervous breakdown.

RS: There’s another problem, which is the material itself. Over to you, honey.

PF: It’s a shallow and arch book, and it scores too easily off its characters. It exists mainly in its narration. Although when Wharton lets the two women really play with Newland, the book almost becomes malicious fun.

RS: I hate the snug, mocking social commentary about what “old New York” was like.

PF: And I hated Joanne Woodward’s reading of the narration. She had the tone of voice of someone who isn’t fun to gossip with. Julia Child would have been a better choice for the narrator.

RS: Scorsese makes old New York look like Vatican City, and his idea of psychology seems to be that WASPs are repressed Italians. What do you think he’s up to?

PF: He sets up an intricate perceiver/perceived thing, with binoculars and theater and paintings on the walls. What he does with it — and with the unbroken camera moves, and the dissolves, and the splintery editing — is try to show how your identity is formed by the tribe you’re in. And how people try to outwit it and like to think they can exist outside it, but are always getting trapped. It’s a web. The problem is that Scorsese thinks in purely cinematic terms. He knows what it is to be formed by movies and the media, but he doesn’t seem able to imagine his way inside someone who wasn’t formed by the media and the movies. Renoir and Ophuls used circling techniques to show characters caught up in a web, but they were so worldly you don’t feel it’s anything but cinematic technique.

RS: Scorsese really believes, or believed, that cinema is the apotheosis of the arts. He was one of those kids who was all revolutionary fervor. And his generation’s revolution has just led to corporate take-overs.

PF: It’s a generation that’s stuck with nostalgia. But I know you’re on a roll.

RS: Thanks. The generation before them — of Altman and Peckinpah — mastered traditional craft before they blew it apart. Scorsese’s generation bypassed traditional craft and headed for personal values. Now Scorsese’s left turning everything he touches into “personal cinema,” which in this case means he’s taken on Edith Wharton and produced a dignified variation of “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas.” He makes the same movie over and move, no matter what the subject. The characters have no free will. There’s only Scorsese’s vision.

PF: In a scene set in the opera house balcony during intermission, the camera and the audio iris in on Newland and the countess, and she talks about the yellow roses he once sent her anonymously. He’s entranced: how does she know he sent them? She finishes talking to him, and she’s backlit for a minute by the stage lights as the curtain rises for the second act — she’s what connects him to the world of grand emotions, and to the arts. Art is viewed as transcendence, as it was in “Raging Bull.” But in “Raging Bull,” Jake LaMotta hurls himself directly at transcendence. Here, Newland holds back.

RS: Newland is like a virgin playing hard-to-get without even knowing it.

PF: I’ve known a few of those too.

© 1993 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in
The Modern Review.

 

“A World Apart,” directed by Chris Menges

a world apart

By Ray Sawhill

“A World Apart,” set in South Africa, is the first feature directed by the famous cinematographer Chris Menges, and for the most part it’s terrific. Menges worked as a documentarian in South Africa in the early 1960s, and the screenplay, by Shawn Slovo, is semi-autobiographical. The story, set in the early 1960s, concerns a young suburban white girl (Jodhi May), a South African whose parents are anti-apartheid activists. She admires them and values their attitudes but can’t help feeling jealous and angry because the political work absorbs so much of her mother’s care and time. (Her father has left the country to escape imprisonment.)

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Chris Menges directs Jodhi May

Menges can’t resist overstressing that Apartheid is Bad, and he isn’t successful with the character of the mother (Barbara Hershey). Hershey has some dignity, but she can’t seem to help being actressy; she’s always playing out an actress’s idea of a character. But the film manages to be earnestly (and movingly) liberal without being a drag. The feelings have been lived through, and, like the look of the movie, they’re turbulent and abraded. Menges has a distinctive talent for capturing private, unguarded-seeming moments (even as he keeps the public events moving around them) without making a big deal of it. His domestic scenes have a warmth and grace worthy of Mary Cassatt.

Menges seems to like working with women: here, a woman producer and a woman writer; his main actors are women, too. This may have some relation to the way you’re almost never asked to admire what has been set up before you — which is how most first-time directors (male or female) ask an audience to watch their movies. Mostly, you’re with the young girl (and the director), peeping around corners, eavesdropping, noticing things out of the corners of your eyes and wondering if other people notice them too. The film is at its best in catching her tangled feelings, and in its portrayal of her predicament. Jodhi May gives the girl a flickering, tentative incandescence.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

 

“Pickford” by Eileen Whitfield and “Becoming Mae West” by Emily Wortis Leider

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Mary Pickford

By Ray Sawhill

In the early part of the century, before the movie business outgrew its seedy origins, it was one of the rare fields where an ambitious woman could hope to make a professional mark. Women wrote and directed; some stars had a measure of control over their movies that a Julia Roberts can only dream of today.

Among the most influential early film women were Mary Pickford and Mae West. In 1909, when she landed her first movie job, Pickford was just scraping by; in 1915, she was one of the world’s best-known women. Despite her winsome on-screen persona, she became the first actress to produce her own films, a cofounder of United Artists, and a major shaper of film acting. In “Pickford” (Univ. of Kentucky), a knockout of a biography on sale next month, Eileen Whitfield shows a rare gift for making sense of acting styles, and for bringing to life the world of silent movies.

Mae West was Pickford’s on-screen opposite, a sashaying cartoon of a woman of the world, appraising (and enjoying) men with self-mocking relish. Behind the scenes, she was Pickford’s match in tenacity and nerve; her producers never thought they were making anything but “Mae West movies.”

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Mae West

In her zesty “Becoming Mae West” (Farrar Straus Giroux), Emily Wortis Leider points out that by the time she barreled into movies, West had 35 years of theater and vaudeville behind her. She liked prizefighters, cross-dressers and stealing credit from collaborators. She wrote a lot of great comic lines (“I like restraint — if it doesn’t go too far”) and gave them all to herself. But by the mid-’30s, Pickford had stopped acting, the business was aspiring to respectability and West’s freedom was curtailed. Since then, few actresses have managed to wield their measure of creative power.

© 1997 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

Short Book Reviews

By Ray Sawhill

* A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters by John Kisch and Edward Mapp. Long before Spike Lee, directors and producers like Oscar Micheaux were making films for what was called the “race-movie circuit.” A fascinating place to begin learning about this tradition is this book by Kisch and Mapp; its introduction by film scholar Donald Bogle covers a lot of ground in 20 pages. Here are posters for Westerns (“Harlem on the Prairie”), comedies (“House-Rent Party”) and musicals (“Reet-Petite and Gone”), nearly all of them featuring an “All-Star Colored Cast.” The posters themselves have a distinctive splashiness and pizzazz that can remind you of the work of the some of the performers they feature: Ethel Waters, Buck & Bubbles, Josephine Baker.

* Another Life by Michael Korda. The editor-raconteur profiles writers and celebs; a canny insider’s look at the book business.

* Asafo! African Flags of the Fante by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard. This visual book is like a parade and a festival between covers. On display are flags made by West African warrior groups that were so taken by the visual splendor of European armies that they started making flags of their own, to their own taste. Spirals, crocodiles, wiggles, arrows and fish are some of the main elements — some of the flags have fringe on the edge. Adler and Barnard report that the Asafo have no written language, and that many of the flags convey oral proverbs, most of them commonsensical. My favorite: “If you shoot at a leopard and do not kill it, it is better not to have shot at all.” The designs have a retina-searing ferocity; the Asafo themselves consider the flags so potent that each new one must be approved by the chief of the elders and displayed before all companies to ensure no one is offended.

* Cracks by Sheila Kohler. Classmates from a South African boarding school meet at a reunion and wrestle with a mystery. An unforced erotic-poetic novella, especially good on the naive sensuality and malice of young girls.

* Cyclops by Albert Watson. Judging from his new book “Cyclops,” the photographer Albert Watson is a post-punk Irving Penn. This is all about style, impact and The New, pitched at an almost worrying level of high-strung artificiality. Here are richly-printed, black and white shots of actors, monkeys, rap stars, prisoners. They’re strikingly, boldly composed and sequenced: figures (a chicken, a dead frog) isolated against the white of the page, set opposite smokey-toned full-page portraits. David Carson, of the avant-garde rock and roll style magazine Ray Gun, designed “Cyclops,” giving it some of his chopped-out, splatter-font excitement. This is a coffee table book for cutting-edge coffee tables, with a bonus: a subtle, luscious nude of Sade.

* Key Ideas in Human Thought edited by Kenneth McLeish etc. It isn’t often that the more you leaf around in a reference work the more engaging it becomes. This book, put together by a team of British scholars, manages the feat. It’s certainly a solid way to bring yourself up to speed on notions from chaos theory to rhythm and blues. But it’s also a wonderful browse—a postmodern database with its own character and wry humor. Idiosyncratic and suave, the entries reflect academia’s freshest thinking. Even the choice of topics suggests a piquant notion of what knowledge is, or may be.

* Merrick by Anne Rice. There’s probably no American fiction writer who’s more review-proof than the New Orleans-based, witches-and-vampire novelist Anne Rice. To her fans, she’s a dark diva of blood, visions and lust. When a new Rice is released, as if on an unspoken signal, they apply the black lipstick, emerge from their dungeons, and buy up every copy printed. Nonfans live in a different dimension entirely. For us, reading her is like listening to incantations delivered in a foreign language—a blur of veils, candles, and horror-movie dialog, interrupted by the occasional sound of veins being punctured. Yet unlike, say, the orgy scene in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Rice’s writing is too trance-inducing to provoke giggles. For the record: her new one, “Merrick” (Knopf), is more of the Poe-meets-heavy-metal usual. A bi-racial heroine and voodoo are the fresh ingredients in the otherwise narcotically-familiar gumbo. Lestat (from “Interview With a Vampire”) makes a cameo appearance. Fans will be thrilled—but then they always are. In interviews, Rice has said that writing “Merrick,” her 22nd novel, brought her out of a depression. We couldn’t be happier for her. Me it left feeling pretty undead.

* Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman. Nominated for a National Book Award, this bio of the great French writer Colette is intelligent and comprehensive. It’s also, unfortunately, a little fussy and overbaked.

* Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana. A suave, anecdote-rich biography of the French filmmaker who was part poet, part careerist, and a compulsive seducer.

* Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. Life in the Hollywood trenches, as recounted by a well-known screenwriter. Smart, shrewd, and more than a little horrifying.

* With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant. These jottings by an actor who was first noticed in the British cult hit “Withnail and I” read as though they were dictated in a rush and edited with a Saladshooter. Yet they’re also sweetly revealing, because Grant seems never to have lost his bewilderment at the life of make-believe and money he has made his way into. He’s gaga when he meets Barbra Streisand; puppy-eager yet shrewd about his directors, such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and unabashedly fond of performers (such as Julia Roberts) in whom he recognizes vulnerability and a spirit of play. Grant himself—an excess of fizz ever in search of some vessel to fill—has plenty of both.

All reviews © Ray Sawhill.